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The bugaboo

by Raimondo Catanzaro

The Myth of Marginality. Urban Poverty and Politics in Rio de Janeiro by Janice E. Perlman. University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, /976 (341 p.), £11.95.

The majority of writers on marginal urban populations analyse the subject within the framework of a dualistic vision of development. For them, marginals represent the traditional sector of the economy, and their characteristics are: no desire to work, and therefore economic parasitism; lack of internal organization and adaptation to life in the city, with consequent lack of social integration; cultural traditionalism and emphasis on a culture of poverty; finally, because they are not socially integrated in the city, the marginals are on the one hand politically apathetic, that is with a low rate of political participation, and on the other, prone to leftist radicalism. Perlman's research in 1968-69 on three favelas (shantytowns) of Rio de Janeiro is a powerful demonstration of the fallacy of most of these assumptions, constituting stereotypes accepted by the scientific community but empirically not valid.

One example is the question of economic marginality. Research shows clearly that the people in the favelas are fully integrated in the market economy, either as workers or as consumers. Almost all of them work or have worked, although often in precarious conditions without security, and 90 percent work outside the favelas in the city. The documentation also shows conclusively that, notwithstanding their low incomes, the favela dwellers of Rio de Janeiro represent a big market for the hard consumer goods industry, particularly electrical household appliances. There is the interesting observation (but the argument is hardly treated) that the living conditions of the favela dwellers govern their consumer preferences. In fact their precarious existence, due to the constant threat of favela demolition, discourages them from investing their savings in improving their homes or building new ones. Nor is their integration in the market economy merely objective. Even with precarious jobs and salaries so low that two or more members of the family must be employed in order to gain a livelihood, marginal people place a high value on work, have aspirations for education and self-betterment and are open to innovation.

However, they have virtually no opportunity of attaining these aims; they are integrated in the market economy and optimistic about their future, but also characterized by fatalism and deference to authority. Quite rightly, the book under review emphasizes that neither fatalism nor deference to authority can be considered signs of cultural traditionalism in a country where any disagreement with superiors involves the risk of dismissal. The generally accepted image of the favela dweller is that of an individual with highly contradictory attitudes: a contradiction that this book passes over too lightly.

Equally far from the stereotype of the marginal population are the results relating to assessment of political attitudes. To some extent, these attitudes correspond to the middle-class aspirations of the favela dweller. The absence of class consciousness is exceptionally marked, even in the identification of class barriers. Half of the people interviewed maintained that their sons and the sons of businessmen had the same chance of success in life. Only one fourth described themselves as proletarians, while a good 10 percent claimed to belong to the middle or upper class. It is therefore not surprising to discover that the favela dwellers are not at all prone to leftist radicalism, being satisfied with their lives and their future prospects. Certainly, the elite is more conformist than the rest of the population, the men more so than the women. Which seems to indicate that the closer one is to the political system, the less radical one is. In the last analysis, however, while political participation is fairly high, the rate of political radicalism is very low. On the other hand, there is a tremendous sense of powerlessness and dependency. The great majority of the favela dwellers, including the elite, say they have not the slightest possibility of influencing government decisions.

A certain power

Marginality, concludes Perlman, does not exist. "... Favela residents are not economically and politically marginal, but are exploited and repressed... They are not socially and culturally marginal, but are stigmatized and excluded from a closed social system." So is marginality a myth?

Yes, if one admits that even myths have a certain power. The myth of marginality divides the working class into conflicting groups to justify the existence of great social inequalities, and to blame the poor for their poverty. The myth of marginality leads to the creation of social groups which, because of their sense of powerlessness and dependency, are perfectly suited for "manipulation and exploitation from above."

Therefore, the favela dwellers are on the one hand repressed, exploited, politically manipulated and excluded from the benefits of the system; at the same time, they are one of its integrating elements. Cheap favela labour serves to lower, directly or indirectly, production costs in all sectors, including the dominant economic sector. The favela dwellers also provide a scapegoat for a series of social problems, since they are considered a source of deviant behaviour. Politically, they are used as a pretext to exclude all the working class. The book gives a good description of both aspects of this integration-exclusion dialectic, and is certainly right on target when criticizing current theories on urban marginality. What seems missing is an analysis of the interrelation between the two aspects of the integration-exclusion dialectic. Perhaps through excess of polemical vigour against the theory she wants to refute, Perlman does not stop to analyse these interrelations.

More than a simple hope

It is not only in this book that one finds this lacuna. The hypothesis of a link between marginality and dependent development, to which reference is made in the concluding chapter, is not yet strong enough to provide a fully satisfying analysis of the contradictions between integration and exclusion of the marginal population in the cities. Why do the favela dwellers, exploited and excluded from the benefits of the system, believe themselves capable of entering it, and adopt middle class values? Why do they not oppose politically a regime that excludes and exploits them?

Although the book does not (and did not intend to) give an exhaustive reply to these questions, it has the merit of stimulating the reader to reflect upon them in a new spirit, setting aside the current stereotypes on marginality. This book, so full of sympathy and human solidarity for the favela dwellers, shows such a high level of stability and such an absence of contradictions in Brazilian society that one is tempted to ask: is there any hope for a better future for the people of Latin America? Perhaps the avenues opened up in this book will be explored in an attempt to show up the contradictions that will make this question far more than a simple hope.